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When it was our game

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Canada has only qualified for the World Cup once — in 1986. But, thanks to a bunch of players who had honed their skills in the Canadian Soccer League, a scrappy and determined national team got very close to making it to USA 1994. That represented the last time Canada got close to a World Cup. We wonder what would have happened to us if the first-division Canadian league would have survived…

The last time Canada’s men’s national soccer team came close to qualifying for the World Cup was over 20 years ago. Many of the team’s current supporters were either too young to remember, or not born at all. For those who are old enough to remember, the details are fuzzy. And, like all distant memories, they become a blend of truth and myth, simple facts that have been correctly stored in a mélange with accidental revisions and fantastical memory overwrites — stirred with the wooden spoon of emotional attachment to particular ideas, themes or narratives.

One such narrative links the string of decent results of the Canadian men’s national soccer team with the existence of the Canadian Soccer League. Virtually all of the players that contributed to the attempt to qualify for the 1994 World Cup — which saw Canada eliminated by Australia in a penalty shootout in the Oceania-CONCACAF playoff — played at least some time in the CSL. It is a very small step from the blissful reminiscence of better times to the obvious speculative question: What if?

What if Canada had qualified for the 1994 World Cup? Would the intervening 20 years of near permanent darkness have contained more light? Would the exposure and notoriety of a World Cup berth have captured the imagination of fans and investors enough to reestablish the CSL? Would a coast-to-coast professional league provided a platform for raw Canadian soccer talents to launch successful professional careers and propel Canada back to the World Cup? Like all such speculative trains of thought, there are fantastic and foolish narrative pathways to be drawn upon, but there are also real lessons to be learned.

The mid-‘80s were crazy times for soccer in Canada. The original NASL had just gone under, the Canadian men’s national team had qualified and competed in its first and only World Cup in Mexico, and the CSL was in its genesis. Born partially of the remnants of the NASL and using the World Cup’s new popularity and visibility, a new Canadian national league was launched in 1987.

Approaches to team building were varied. The Hamilton Steelers, for instance, had been around for a while in various leagues and became one of the CSL’s original teams. The Steelers owner, Mario DiBartolomeo, was exactly the kind of committed long-term owner the league needed for stability. Canadian legend Alex Bunbury, who was drafted by the Steelers as an 18-year-old, hails DiBartolomeo as a “mainstay” and as one who was “building the foundation of soccer in Canada.”

A completely different approach was taken on the West Coast. Returning from the World Cup in 1986, Bob Lenarduzzi worked to establish the Vancouver 86ers, the name reflecting both 1886, the year of Vancouver’s establishment, as well as the 86 members of the West Coast Soccer Society, who each put up $500 to help establish the team.

According to Lenarduzzi, the 86ers managed to survive without a major financial backer mainly on ticket sales — which remained reasonably stable over the first few years of the club’s existence.

Canadian captain Colin Miller shakes hands with Aussie captain Graham Arnold before their two sides met in the Edmonton leg of their
CONCACAF-Oceania World Cup qualifying playoff.

Winnipeg-based soccer analyst and writer Bobby McMahon was also involved in the CSL as part of the Winnipeg Fury organization.

In McMahon’s words, the Fury were one of “the least capitalized” teams in the league, but it provided an important logistical link in the centre of the country to bridge the enormous geographical gap between eastern and western teams.

To say that the league was volatile would be a serious understatement. In 1987, the inaugural year of the league, there were eight teams. By 1990 there were 11 teams but, in 1992, the year of the leagues dissolution, there were only six. Of the 13 teams that competed in the league only four competed in every season — including the 86ers and the Fury. The Nova Scotia Clippers competed only in the 1991 season. The London Lasers competed in 1990, went on hiatus in 1991, only to rejoin the league in 1992. Teams in Kitchener and Victoria lasted only two years each. Teams in Ottawa and Calgary lasted just three years each.

There were many reasons for this volatility — according to those involved — but some were more important than others.

According to Lenarduzzi, despite the commitment of many CSL club owners, the league had difficulty attracting enough investors with long-term vision and  financial resources to fund the league until it became profitable.

McMahon echoes this sentiment in his experience with the Fury.

“Without deep pockets to begin with, it was never going to work,” he says. And ,with shrinking gate receipts, political fractures, and waning local support, by the end of the CSL’s run the Fury were barely getting by.

Another difficulty is highlighted by former CSL and national team player Mike Sweeney. “A league only within Canada cannot make it due to the geography.”

Due to the distances and high cost of travel, any Canadian club in a coast-to-coast league has to cope with this difficult financial reality.

But despite its difficulties, the CSL played a critical role in developing Canadian players. In fact, the contrast between the league’s financial difficulties and its developmental successes couldn’t be greater.

Making the jump from an academy player to a professional is a critical step in a player’s development and the CSL played an important role in this transition. Current Orlando City FC assistant coach Mark Watson is unequivocal in his support of the league.

“The CSL was essential in helping myself and a lot of younger players start off in the game, learn the game, and approach the game as a professional.”

Jason deVos, a TSN analyst and broadcaster, describes the CSL as a proving ground where players are made.

“For me, when I first came into the league as a 16-year-old, I was playing against the best in Canada and it was very much a sink-or-swim environment. It really made me as a player because my development from the age of 16 to 19 was exponential. One week it’s Catliff and Mobilio, the next week it’s Peschisolido, next it’s Bunbury, then it’s Eddy Berdusco. You’re playing against the top strikers in the country and, as a defender it was an opportunity for me to learn my trade.”

The CSL was the league where many of Canada’s top players learned to be professionals. Many of them translated their newly minted professionalism into careers at higher levels overseas.

North York Rockets vs. Winnipeg Fury in classic CSL action. PHOTO: LES JONES

Alex Bunbury went on to England and then Maritimo in Portugal and states that he “couldn’t think of a better apprenticeship” than the CSL to help him make the jump. Paul Peschisolido, Watson, Geoff Aunger, Lyndon Hooper and Jason deVos went from the CSL to England. Colin Miller went back and forth from the Scottish first division to the CSL. In Lenarduzzi’s words the CSL was the “springboard to take their careers to a whole other level.”

In 1992, while the CSL was struggling through its final season before folding, the Canadian men’s national ueam was beginning its attempt to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Held in the United States and with the potential for high visibility and attention, qualification would have been a serious boost for soccer in Canada. However, with only one direct CONCACAF spot available — because the Americans grabbed an automatic spot as hosts — and the powerhouse Mexican team being the obvious favourite, Canada was in tough. This didn’t discourage the Canadian players, who describe a perfect storm of factors increasing the chances of Canada’s qualification.

Sweeney, who was called back into the national team by Lenarduzzi after retiring from the international game, cites a great combination of veterans who competed in the 1986 World Cup together with younger players. The team had a complement of solid professionals getting consistent first-team minutes in professional environments in every position on the pitch. Bunbury adds the importance of Lenarduzzi’s experience and player-management ability as being critical.

But the team had much more than the right people in important positions. It also had intangibles. It had belief, commitment, and identity, and these traits united them and propelled them forward. There was a lack of ego or pretense between players returning from European leagues and those based in the CSL , says Watson.

“You would do anything for 90 minutes to get a result,” states Watson.

Miller supports Watson’s estimation: “We were just an honest, hard-working group of players. We made a commitment at that time as a group to say ‘Let’s have a real bash at this.’ The culture was what I would say should typify a Canadian team and that is that we would fight tooth and nail to get a result. “

“We didn’t have much flair,” says Bunbury. “It was a workman’s kind of attitude and it really identified what Canada was all about. Everybody got along and everybody was pushing each other. We were willing to make sacrifices for one another. That’s Canada.”

When watching the games from the early ‘90s, one is immediately struck by the intensity and passion displayed on the field.

Additionally, the team got results where fans have forgotten that a Canadian team can get results. It tied Honduras away only because Honduras scored a last-minute penalty. It beat El Salvador away. In the final qualification game at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium against Mexico, a win would have seen Canada through. A 17th-minute strike from Bunbury put Canada in the lead but in his words “We had it. Then we let it slip away,” conceding two goals to give Mexico the victory and direct qualification.

A scintillating 2-1 victory over Australia at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton in the first leg of the CONCACAF-Oceania playoff gave the Canadians hope. But the team lost the return leg in Australia 2-1. With the teams tied on aggregate, the game went to penalties and Australia prevailed. The World Cup dream was over.

Canada has not come that close since. In 1998, despite having three CONCACAF spots in the World Cup, Canada finished bottom of The Hex. In all subsequent qualification attempts, the team failed to make the final six. With the 2000 Gold Cup win being the lone bright spot, the years since the CSL have been incredibly dark.

The solution seems too obvious. When Canada had a domestic league the team had a reasonable level of success. Since then, it has not. Bring back a Canadian domestic league and Canada should be back on the road to the World Cup.

If only it were that simple. It may be a stark lesson that, without a lot of players playing first- team minutes, a country’s soccer team is going nowhere, but it is equally clear that without solid, long-term financial backing, a Canadian league would be doomed from the start.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN PLASTIC PITCH #5.

Lenarduzzi points to the current MLS, NASL and USL teams to fill the void.

“We have enough teams that if they’re committed can provide opportunities for the best young players,” and, as president of the Whitecaps, Lenarduzzi states that he would like the club to be a “conveyor belt of players that will eventually play in our senior squad and also get Canada back to the World Cup.”

McMahon agrees stating that by plugging into “existing pyramids” shared with the United States is the most stable situation and helps eliminate many of the financial hurdles with an all- Canadian league being more viable at a lower level.

But can these teams help Canada get over the developmental hurdles as well? Jason deVos is skeptical that they will provide solutions.

“Their mandate is not to produce players for the national team, their mandate is to win games,” states deVos; he adds that the developmental landscape is so split up and fractured that there is no cohesive plan. He agrees however, that the most viable Canadian league may be a series of Division 3 leagues as were proposed in the recent Easton report.

Since the 1994 World Cup there has been little soccer success for the Canadian men. Had they qualified, it is difficult to see how that would have led to a resurrection of the CSL given the very difficult financial reality of soccer in this country. To this day, it is difficult enough to get people to agree that there should be a Canada-wide league let alone establish one.

For the time being, Canadian hopes hinge to a large extent on partnerships with American leagues. Any attempt to establish a Canadian league would need to be well-funded by people with long-term vision and a willingness to stay the course despite the difficulties, financial and otherwise. But if that is one lesson from the CSL, the other is that the developmental payoff can be very significant. It is unclear whether in this time and context a Canadian league would be able to do the job it did in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It is also unclear whether or not the current Canadian professional teams in American leagues will eventually fulfill the developmental need for Canadian players.

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